TOKYO -- Toyota Motor has stepped up its efforts to tap artificial intelligence technology, with the establishment of a new research unit in the U.S. In addition to applications in self-driving cars, the Japanese auto giant is showing interest in using AI to improve people's lives in many areas, as well as to advance auto and other unrelated industries.
During a news conference in November to announce the establishment of the Toyota Research Institute, Toyota President Akio Toyoda repeatedly mentioned his belief that AI and big data are the keys to transforming the foundation of the auto and various other industries.
The research unit in Palo Alto in the U.S. state of California was established earlier this month. With a start-up staff of 200 or so, the institute will handle cutting-edge research and product planning in the fields related to AI. Toyota plans to invest roughly $1 billion over the five-year period through 2020.
The TRI's goal is to bridge the gap between fundamental research and the development of products that will enrich people's lives. It has hired Gill Pratt, a noted expert on robotics and AI, as its CEO.
Pratt was involved in multiple robotics-related projects at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from 2010 to 2015 as a program manager, a position that comes with a high level of discretionary power. Furthermore, he has been teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has launched three start-ups.
The key to success in AI research and development is the caliber of the people working on the project. The TRI will likely benefit greatly from the CEO's high profile and broad network of personal connections.
During the November news conference, Pratt talked about AI technology's wide range of potential applications.
"AI can be used to schedule cars, manage traffic, deliver goods, schedule the operation of a factory even beyond Toyota's famous production system, and accelerate scientific discovery in materials and environmental technology," he said.
"TRI will aim to develop technology for these and other applications, expand Toyota's boundaries, and positively impact society," Pratt said. "I think Toyota will contribute to society by transforming from a successful hardware company to a new company, by integrating software technologies."
Not just smart cars
The CEO's comments indicate that the Toyota group is looking beyond just advancing automobile technology. Over the long term, the group is aiming to establish new technologies that can improve people's lives as well as industrial activities on a fundamental level.
"We have three initial goals in mind for TRI: safety, accessibility and robotics," Pratt said.
In the area of safety, the research unit's focus will be technologies for preventing automobile accidents regardless of the driver's skills and abilities. Its research will cover functions that assist the driver only when the vehicle encounters a potentially dangerous situation, as well as autonomous driving functions. The former will be a step up from existing functions, such as cruise control, which automatically keeps the vehicle going at a speed designated by the driver. The latter will ultimately turn into fully automatic driving.
TRI's goal in the field of accessibility is to develop technologies that will enable anyone to enjoy the freedom of movement that cars allow.
In robotics, the institute will focus on developing machines that will enable elderly people to lead more dignified lives in their own homes.
Beginning a long race
Aside from major automakers, Google, Apple and other leading Silicon Valley information technology firms have been conducting tests of automatic driving technologies.
Toyota has not tackled commercialization of automatic driving as actively as those companies. But Pratt is optimistic, since he thinks the race to develop self-driving vehicles is still in its early stages. The first of such vehicles are expected to hit the road around 2020, but automatic driving technology will likely continue advancing over the next several decades.
TRI's competitive advantage against rivals is the fact that it has access to massive amounts of data.
"Toyota sells approximately 10 million vehicles a year -- 100 million in 10 years," Pratt said. "If each of them runs 10,000km a year, that totals 1 trillion km per year of potential real-world data."
"Data which could be collected from Toyota vehicles driving in variety of conditions all over the world will be key for us to accelerate the evolution of future technology," the TRI CEO added.
Analyzing huge amounts of data is a necessary step toward improving the accuracy of AI's cognitive capability. Accessing data that was generated under various different conditions will help the TRI develop safer self-driving functions.
Technology for better lives
Toyoda revealed that a decision in March 2015 to become an official sponsor of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo has led to Toyota deepening its efforts to commercialize self-driving technology.
"I changed my mind about self driving after hearing from Paralympic athletes that they want to drive various cars, not just ones designed specifically for people with physical challenges," the president said.
He went on to say that the episode also opened his eyes to how essential self-driving technology will be, given that countries around the world will be facing aging of their populations in coming decades.